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From Yeshiva Nights…
…to Rabbi Days
Bringing Manchester to Disneyland: Turning a Resort Town into a Resort for the Soul -
In this edition we continue an exciting new feature: historian, journalist and broadcaster Dr Yaakov Wise of Manchester University speaks with leading Jewish personalities with a Manchester connection. The spotlight in this issue is on Rabbi Yossi (Yosef Yitzhak) Amar of Seine-et-Marne, France.
With 'enchanted' castles, giant mice in suits and bowties, and hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world filling the DisneyLand resort in the heart of their community, you might think the residents of Seine et Marne have seen it all. They might be tempted to think so, too, but Manchester Yeshiva alumnus Rabbi Yossi Amar and his wife Tzal'ha have given the local Jewish community a chance to experience Judaism in a way that none of them had ever seen before.
With a public Menorah lighting outside Seine et Marne's City Hall this past Chanukah, the positive publicity surrounding their Chabad House in the neighbourhood of Pontault Combault has given area non-Jews a fresh look at Jews and Judaism as well. The Menorah lighting attracted more than 60 of Seine et Marne's 3,600 Jewish families, despite heavy rain and sleet, and was covered in the local local newspaper. The message of light conquering darkness, and of freedom triumphing over tyranny, touched the hearts of everyone in attendance. The mayor of Pontault Combault and Vice President of the Seine et Marne General Council, Madame Dellessard, participated in the lighting of the Menorah and said a few words about the universal message of Chanukah.
The Amars settled in Pontault Combault, the major town of the Seine-et-Marne (the 77th) district, in 2002, at the request of Rabbi Shmuel Azimov, the France Chabad national director. For Rabbi Amar, known simply as Yossi to young and old alike, the move brought him full circle.
Rabbi Amar was born in the French city of Montreuil to a family of hard working and dedicated Lubavitcher hassidim. His father, whose family had immigrated to France from Morocco, and his mother, who was born in Germany, both work for leading International and Jewish Foundations providing humanitarian aid and social support to needy and neglected members of the Jewish community. They have worked closely with Nobel peace prize winner and Holocaust survivor Prof. Elie Wiesel. After high school the young Yossi travelled to the well-known junior Yeshiva at Brunoy where many thousands of French hassidim have been educated. In 1992, Yossi followed his older brother to Manchester. After learning in Manchester for a year, Yossi decided to move closer to the Rebbe in New York but he was sent back to Manchester to act as a guide and mentor to the yeshiva bochrim and other youngsters for 12 months, starting in the autumn of 1996.
Like all Manchester yeshiva students, Rabbi Amar has nothing but praise for the Rosh Yeshiva, our dear Rabbi Akiva Cohen.
“Manchester does not realise what a precious jewel it has in its midst,” exclaims Rabbi Amar in perfect, if slightly American accented English. “The Rosh Yeshiva does not receive anywhere near the recognition or appreciation he deserves. In any continental European city people would queue up to kiss his hand!"
Rabbi Cohen always keeps an ‘open house’ and lovingly monitors the progress of each one of his students.
“The Rosh Yeshiva always knew where you were spiritually and he knew where you were coming from,” says Rabbi Amar. “He knew what was happening to every student.”
Rabbi Amar also praises Rabbi Chaim Farro as someone who dedicates his life to helping his fellow Jews, including those boys far away from home studying in a foreign country whose habits they are having trouble getting used to!
After Yossi's marriage to the Tzal’ha, nee Baumgarten, in 1998 it didn't look as though Hashem's plan was going to be leading him back to France. Initially, the couple joined Tzal'ha's family in Argentina where her Zayde the very famous shliach of the Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Baumgarten z”l -had been instrumental in establishing the Chabad institutions in Latin America, and particularly in Argentina, beginning in 1956. After an intensive language course in Spanish [easier for a Frenchman as French and Spanish are cognate languages] Rabbi Yossi tackled the challenges of a rapidly ageing and numerically declining Jewish community as a shliach in Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital city.
Yet just four years later they found themselves back in Europe, establishing their Chabad House in Seine et Marne. Today, their five children are growing up just a short train ride away from Rabbi Yossi was born.
Rabbi & Mrs. Amar successfully opened a brand new, purpose built Chabad House in June last year and their programs are thriving. With over 3,600 Jewish families in Seine-et-Marne, spread out over a vast swathe of the French landscape (Seine et Marne is actually a semi-rural area comprised of over 1,200,000 residents in 572 small towns and villages), Rabbi Amar is kept tremendously busy giving lectures, counselling individuals and families, arranging Shabbat and Tom Tov hospitality, fixing mezuzahs, and providing a warm and friendly face when people feel the need to reconnect to their heritage. At least 1,000 families receive his weekly E-Tor@h newsletter (which can be read at the Chabad house website www.chabad77.org ), and many are encouraged to attend weekly classes and celebrate the festivals in true Jewish spirit. In addition to providing Shabbos and Yom Tov hospitality together with her husband, Madame Amar also directs programs for women and youth, including the Sunday Hebrew school.
After the inauguration of the magnificent new Chabad house building last June, and dedicating their first new sefer torah back in January this year, the next big project will be to build a mikvah (as there are none in the entire area), quite a challenge in an area where most Jewish families still maintain they are ‘totally secular’ and the inter-marriage rate is approaching seventy per cent. But the Amars know that by patience, hard work, a well known non-judgemental Chabad approach and a lot of help from Heaven, they will obtain their new goal just as they have revived Judaism in the district and, one family at a time, brought many people back to their traditions.
In addition to the local Jewish residents, Rabbi and Madame Amar act as contacts and advisors to the hundreds of Jewish visitors to Disneyland Resort Paris (formerly known as EuroDisney) which, in accordance with strict Disney Corporation policy, has no facilities whatsoever for observant Jewish tourists or for tourists to practice any other religion. Needless to say, if traditionally minded Jewish tourists need a friendly place to stay for Shabbat, they need look no further than the Chabad House in Pontault Combault, which is the closest shul and Jewish Community Center.
Ironically, the one place the children of Seine-et-Marne’s Gan Israel summer day camp don’t want to visit is Disneyland. Most of them have annual passes that allow them to visit whenever they want. Just as Londoners rarely visit the Tower or Buckingham Palace, the novelty of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck has worn off for residents of Seine et Marne- but the warmth of their local Chabad House is something they'll never tire of!